Nestled behind tranquil Batiquitos Lagoon, the community of La Costa fills the valley floor of San Marcos Creek and clings to its lush canyon walls. Newer sections perch atop the rolling hills that surround the canyon, 38 miles north of San Diego.
Born as a vacation condo development that merely accompanied the glamorous, occasionally-notorious La Costa Hotel and Spa of 1970, the 'nice-place-to-visit-but' has bloomed into a nice place to put down roots for more than 16,000 permanent residents.
Stretched white limousines bearing beautiful, tanned people are yawningly common sights at the corner of El Camino Real and Costa del Mar Road. But along La Costa's twining, manicured byways, you'll see more yard sales, dog walkers and station wagons packed with Little Leaguers than ever before. The La Costa Avenue exit off Interstate 5 leads not only to the fabled spa, but also to the fastest growing "Park and Ride" commuter station in North County.
"La Costa is actually part of Carlsbad," said Anne Kulchin, a La Costa resident and Carlsbad city council member. "But we can have it either way. If we want to impress people in big cities back East, we say we live at La Costa, and they 'know' about the spa. It's the San Diegans who have to ask, 'Where is that in relation to Carlsbad?' "
It's south. La Costa became the southwest corner of Carlsbad's city limit (see map) when it annexed itself to Carlsbad in 1972. Olivenhain Road and El Camino Real loosely mark the community's south and west sides, and much of the land accessible off both sides of Rancho Santa Fe Road between Olivenhain and San Marcos is also part of La Costa. But its northern boundary runs somewhere north of and parallel to Alga Road, but not as far north as Palomar Airport Road.
Driving by on I-5, visitors first notice Batiquitos Lagoon. If the ocean tide is high, the lagoon shimmers. If it's low, marshy cat tails appear to shrink the shallow shoreline. When fog lays heavy on the tranquil waters, you might imagine Indians of the Luiseno tribes who lived here and gathered shellfish from the lagoon. Although Batiquitos Lagoon was mentioned in early Spanish land grants, it never was part of the original La Costa Hotel and Spa.
Hollywood celebrities of the late '60s favored this European-style spa over the many desert resorts, perhaps because it was just down the coast. Wealthy guests soon wanted vacation bungalows of their own, and as the number of spa employees grew, they needed housing too. So the Las Vegas-based La Costa Land company began offering residences with vacation flavor. All that glamour and profit soon attracted bigger bucks and swifter development. In the '80s, local headlines hinted of mob financing and high-rollers, but ironically, what emerged was an image of La Costa as a lifestyle: flashy yet attainable.
And attain they do. Today, the average La Costa resident is 35 years old and earns more than $50,000 per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the San Diego Assn. of Governments. "We think of the spa as a good neighbor," says Sandra Gilkin, buying flowers from a corner vendor. "We eat there quite often, and my husband likes their golf course. But the resort isn't the only thing there is in La Costa," Gilkin said.
Within their locale, La Costans support a dozen restaurants, four shopping centers, two public schools, a public library, four public parks with ambitious cultural and recreational programs, and a church. Developers promise another church site, two more schools, and another recreation center complete with a day-care facility and swimming pool. La Costans already enjoy their own historic ruin.
Just off Rancho Santa Fe Road, visitors can see five crumbling adobe walls protected from the elements (and from souvenir-hungry tourists) beneath a sturdy shelter. This humble ruin is all that remains of a "way station" on the J.S. Mannasse ranch, part of the Butterfield Stagecoach Line of the 1860s. Adventurous travelers sought comfort here from their two-day horse-drawn coach ride between San Diego's Franklin Hotel and points in Los Angeles.
Thus Stagecoach Park, built around the ruin, offers a lavish array of comforts for young and older La Costans: summer jazz and pop music concerts, jazzy aerobic workouts, self-guided bicycle tours of art exhibits in the park, volleyball, ballet and, of course, Little League baseball.
A modern sculptural rendition of the historic walls flanks the park's grassy slopes. These newer walls invite La Costa's children to scramble up their gentle sides, to sit on top awhile and ponder a nearby sliver of riparian wilderness preserve that borders Stagecoach Park.
Limousine-drawn guests of the La Costa Resort roll by the yard sales and dog walkers, each attaining comfort in their own way. And along I-5, when the fog rolls in over the lagoon, the spirits of Indians reaffirm that La Costa is a nice place to live, and to visit.